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Audi A3 TDI 2004 Review

It's the clatter of tiny pistons in the driveway and, similarly, it represents a big lifestyle change.

Welcome to the new age of diesel-engined – or perhaps more correctly, diesel-fuelled – cars.

Australia has been poorly served by diesel passenger vehicles while owners in Europe bask in the mechanical chatter of fuel-efficient, durable and reliable oil-burning cars.

It's easy to see why – diesel in most other nations is half the price of petrol, unlike the general parity in Australia.

Some are already here – Peugeot and Citroen especially – though Australia's grotty, high-sulphur diesel fuel has restricted imports of high-performance cars.

It's getting better.

The sulphur content of Australian-supplied diesel fuel is as high as 500ppm (parts per million), but that will fall to 50ppm by January 1, 2006, allowing new-generation, high-performance engines to run cleanly and trouble free.

But we don't have to wait that long. Audi this month unleashed its first performance diesel – appearing in the A3 – and more will come from the maker.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW have less fuel-sensitive diesel-engined vehicles on the market, though they – and others – will offer better engines by 2006.

Which leaves us at 110km/h on a flat ribbon of bitumen east of Perth with the Audi A3's engine humming at a mere 2000rpm.

Other than the muted gruffness and subtle clatter of the engine at idle, there is no hint that this car is alternatively fuelled.

Drive it – really drive it hard – and it feels like a very torquey petrol engine.

It does suffer from some lag off the mark, though clever drivers can use the automatic transmission's manual shift to reduce this.

The engine dislikes high revs – it redlines at 4500rpm – but there's no need to go that hard because all the oomph comes in mainly from 1500-3000rpm. Over-revving merely causes engine wear and high fuel consumption – it doesn't improve performance.

The A3's handling and road manners are confident, impressing more in the country where its solid feel makes the driver test the sensational handling.

It is as easy to drive as a petrol-fuelled car. Earlier diesels

required the driver to wait a few seconds before cranking over the engine to allow time for the glow plugs to heat up.

Despite a rather unpleasant 0.6C Sunday morning recently, the Audi started first turn without any waiting.

Now if you think all that's pretty smart, have a look at the gearbox.

This is Audi's six-speed DSG (direct shift gearbox) transmission that acts like a conventional automatic but with the option of using the Tiptronic function, operated either by the gear lever or small paddles on the steering wheel.

The trick is the speed of the gearchanges – not only better than a manual, but better than any sequential semi-automatic.

The reason is the DSG has two clutch plates. While happily accelerating in first gear, the second clutch engages second gear and spins it up to the required speed, before it falls straight into the drivetrain with virtually no pause.

While second gear is engaged, the DSG gets third gear ready, and so on right through the six ratios. It's speed of engagement makes it more than a rival for any standard manual gearbox, so why buy one?

DSG is offered only on the model tested, an A3 TDI, and the 3.2-litre petrol V6 version.

The new A3 three-door hatch is visibly cleaner than before, though its bland shape does suffer an identity crisis. That aside, the build quality is fantastic. Yes, better than Mercedes and BMW.

The panel fit of the body, the superb materials used in the cabin and the way everything works so well puts it above even Lexus.

There's a big boot that expands thanks to a split-fold rear seat, but beneath the luxurious carpet in the cargo area is a stupid space-saver tyre.

There are six airbags, a brilliant Bose sound system, dual-zone climatic airconditioning, electric windows, leather upholstery and big alloy wheels.

But you pay for it. The A3 TDI's $47,800 price tag – plus onroad costs – is an awful lot for a small four-seater ostensibly as functional as a $21,000 Toyota Corolla hatch.

Pricing Guides

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Range and Specs

1.6 1.6L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $4,290 – 6,270 2004 Audi A3 2004 1.6 Pricing and Specs
1.6 Attraction 1.6L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $4,290 – 6,380 2004 Audi A3 2004 1.6 Attraction Pricing and Specs
1.8 1.8L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $4,620 – 6,820 2004 Audi A3 2004 1.8 Pricing and Specs
1.8 Turbo 1.8L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,610 – 7,920 2004 Audi A3 2004 1.8 Turbo Pricing and Specs